By Joceline Tan
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is famous for his street-fighter style but he has been fighting on too many fronts and his recent altercation with a popular Chinese vernacular newspaper has stirred up the media fraternity in the state.
BACK in 2010, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng held up a copy of Guang Ming Daily during an event and praised it for a report about his government. Guang Ming, a Chinese vernacular paper with an established Penang base, had published a front page story about business groups in the state expressing support for his administration.
Guan Eng was very pleased with the report which coincided with his second year in office. But his relationship with Guang Ming is now going through a rather rocky phase.
The fallout apparently started after Guang Ming published a rather flamboyant front page story quoting Guan Eng and his wife Betty Chew regarding a pretty female staff who had been a special officer in Guan Eng’s office before she was suddenly transferred out. The issue had been in cyberspace for some time but it sort of exploded when it was raised at the Malacca Legislative Assembly where Chew has a seat.
The Guang Ming report titled “Yao yan zhi yu zhi ze (Rumours will not harm a wise man)”, among other things, suggested that Guan Eng should have acted the moment the rumours first surfaced.
Media headache: Lim has had a choppy relationship with the Penang media from day one of his administration. He is seen with his politician wife Betty Chew arriving for the public debate with MCA’s Dr Chua.Shortly after the report was published, a senior Guang Ming editor met her former reporter (now working for Guan Eng) at a funeral wake. During their conversation, the editor passed a remark about the report. Word of it reached the Chief Minister, and he issued a strongly-worded statement accusing the paper of “targeting” him.
Guang Ming is a sister paper of Sin Chew Daily and this media group has a record of standing staunchly by their editorial staff. The paper subsequently front-paged their staff’s version of the issue alongside Guan Eng’s statement. This created a big splash in the Chinese media fraternity, and many journalists were stunned that a conversation at a wake had become a political issue.
It was not the first time Guan Eng was taking issue with the Chinese media in Penang but it had never been on such a scale. In that sense, the Guang Ming episode was a new development in Guan Eng’s ties with the Chinese mainstream media.
The Chinese press has traditionally had a good relationship with the DAP. DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang used to tell close aides in the party that “without the Chinese media, there would be no DAP.”
“We don’t have branches everywhere and our constituents are mostly Chinese-speaking. We would not be where we are today without friends in the Chinese press,” said a senior DAP figure.
Kit Siang has had his share of clashes with the media but he does not believe in boycotting newspapers.
He once told the above DAP figure: “Once you boycott, how do you un-boycott without looking bad?”
The controversial front page in Guang Ming Daily.Or, as one DAP parliamentarian from Penang put it: “The Chinese press helped sweep in the tsunami YBs. We owe a lot to them.”
Shortly before the Guang Ming issue, Sin Chew Daily also had a run-in of sorts with Lim, who has a bi-monthly column in the paper. Some time in June, he wrote about his launch of free Wi-Fi in Penang, lauding it as an avenue where people could have free access to information and news. The mainstream media, he noted, carried only one part of the news and that once the election starts, the media which is considered to be impartial will be one-sided.
Sin Chew is quite an upright paper and has taken the moral high ground on a host of issues. The paper’s bosses felt that Lim was entitled to his views but they were appalled that their paper was being used to condemn the mainstream media of which they are an integral part.
“It’s like I invite you to my chicken rice shop to eat for free. Then after eating, you tell other customers, ‘don’t eat here, you will get stomachache, go to another shop’,” said a Sin Chew staff.
Lim’s article appeared in the paper’s evening edition but it was missing from the usual spot the next day. However, the paper came under a lot of pressure and had to carry an apology for not informing Guan Eng that the column would be withdrawn. The matter is over and done with but it left a bad taste in the mouth of the Sin Chew staff.
Sin Chew sees itself as a reflection of the Chinese community and an opinion shaper. Its editorial leadership has always held that if Chinese leaders are not doing right, then it is the paper’s duty and responsibility to point it out.
For instance, at the height of the MCA power struggle several years ago, the paper declared then MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat as the “worst president in the history of the MCA”. Ong’s supporters were furious but the paper felt it had to do it.
“We know our job, please don’t run us down for nothing. It is not personal. We have criticised (Datuk Seri Dr) Chua Soi Lek when he was wrong. But when he does the right thing, we give due respect,” said Datuk C.C. Liew, Sin Chew’s former managing director and now the group’s media advisor.
Liew is one of those Chinese media figures who go back some ways with politicians like Kit Siang.
“Kit Siang is a true reader of every newspaper. He can be critical but he does not harass us to make demands and to accuse. I take my hat off to him for that even though we may not agree on politics. People like him understand the principle of press freedom and that includes taking news that are unfavourable as long as it is not libelous,” said Liew.
More recently, Guan Eng has lambasted The Star for its reports on the hills of Penang. He did not like the paper highlighting the complaints of Penang people about how hillslope development had affected their neighbourhoods.
Challenge from CM
Last week, in the midst of his public debate with MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, Lim referred to The Star’s front page report on “The Crying Hills” of Penang and challenged The Star’s group chief editor Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai to an open dialogue on the issue.
The latest issue of the state government publication, Bulletin Mutiara, continued the attack and accused the paper of “rewriting history” on the hills issue. This is probably a record of sorts because the paper had never been singled out this way in the state newsletter.
When The Star highlighted the hills dilemma, it laid the blame squarely on the policies of the Barisan government and urged the present government to find solutions for the future.
Former DAP senator Tun Aziz Ibrahim who had followed the story with great interest said: “If what the previous government did was wrong, your duty as the present government is to come up with policies to correct the wrong. If you allow it to continue, then you are endorsing a wrong and two wrongs do not make a right.”
Not all the Penang DAP leaders are taking the same combative road. Instead of locking horns with the media and the angry groups of residents, senior state exco members like Chow Kon Yeow and Phee Boon Poh have tried to engage the groups. They say they are now the government of the day and their priority is to find solutions to problems rather than play the blame game.
Guan Eng’s extreme reaction to news reports that are not to his liking has been a subject of discussion among many journalists. They are wondering whether such extreme responses to issues is coming directly from him or if it is a result of the staff around him.
His office is located on the 28th floor of Komtar and, according to the media folk in Penang, the “28th Floor” is being spoken of in the same tone as Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s famous “Fourth Floor”.
The boys running Pak Lah’s Fourth Floor were very powerful and motivated but they were also inexperienced and in too much of a hurry. As a result, they made mistakes, stepped on toes and became very unpopular.
Both Utusan Malaysia and New Straits Times (NST) have been banned from covering state government functions since 2008. Guan Eng clashed with Utusan Malaysia from day one of his administration. Three months into his term, he had a massive falling-out with NST over bureau chief Sharanjit Singh’s analysis of his 100th day in power.
Sharanjit had been covering DAP in Malacca before he was posted to Penang and his parents in Alor Setar and DAP chairman Karpal Singh are family friends. He remembers the day when Guan Eng phoned him at about 7am, shouting over the phone. He had never experienced anything like that in all his years as a journalist and his voice still sounds distraught when recalling that episode.
What upset the paper was that instead of just asking the NST to make clarifications, Guan Eng’s press officer sent out a fierce statement to all the media. Some very strong accusations were made against Sharanjit who has kept all the documents for future use.
Some media practitioners think Guan Eng is taking a combative approach with his old friends in the Chinese mainstream media because he has new friends in the new media.
Moreover, everyone knows about the cyber-troopers who stalk the Internet, intimidating journalists who are critical of the party and flooding the pro-Pakatan websites with commentary.
Penang-based columnist Chew Siew Hui, one of the two Guang Ming staff singled out by Guan Eng in the above incident, said that she has been writing political analyses for the last 10 years, some of which were very critical of former CM Dr Koh Tsu Koon. But neither Dr Koh nor any of his assistants had ever called to complain. The Taiwan graduate said Guan Eng has a lot of supporters, and journalists needed a lot of courage to criticise.
“Fortunately, we have many brave reporters in Penang who insist on speaking up. We will continue to monitor those in power whether it was during Koh Tsu Koon’s era or Lim Guan Eng’s era,” she said.
For a long time, Penang reporters did not have anything nice to say about Guan Eng’s predecessor. But now they are saying Dr Koh was a gentleman who did not call up to complain and he was respectful to reporters.
“The scales have dropped from their eyes. Chinese press people have a clearer picture,” said a Penang-born historian.
Many DAP politicians in Penang are watching all this with great uneasiness. They know the masses are still with them and they are confident about their hardcore supporters. Their concern is the impact of this type of quarrels on the fence-sitters.
As for the hills issue, they think it is a middle class matter that will not affect the DAP’s traditional base.
There have been very few voices from the party joining Guan Eng’s fight with the media. The DAP base is still very Chinese in nature and these politicians are anxious to keep ties with the media read by the Chinese.